The Big Dialogue of Literature
Socialism and Science Fiction

Film and Literature

This article on the adaptation of Russian "literary classics" to tv concludes:

One argument that producers brought forward when defending TV adaptation of classics a few years ago, when the trend had just started, was that teenagers who would have never read a book would at least watch a TV series based on it and get acquainted with literature classics in this way. And that argument seems to be valid. The rationale of those who argue that contemporary TV adaptations of classical novels are vulgar and simplistic may be right to a certain degree. But they are definitely missing one important point: literary classics have become part of pop culture and should be viewed in that way, not like something sacred.

What exactly does it mean to "get acquainted with literature classics" by watching a tv show? Simply to know that they exist? This was for a long time one of the implicit justifications of "exposing" students to great works of literature--make them aware that these books exist so that they might know where the "best" examples of human expression can be found, might be able to follow a conversation in which these illustrious names are mentioned, or might even--gasp!--one day read the books and take them seriously. But I doubt that E.D. Hirsch understood "cultural literacy" quite to mean that "literary classics have become part of pop culture and should be viewed in that way, not like something sacred."

I've tried as earnestly as I can to understand the logic behind the notion that it's good that "teenagers who would have never read a book would at least watch a TV series based on it." This is also a long-standing justification both for making adaptations of "literary classics" and for showing such films and programs to students as either a supplement to or an outright replacement for reading the works in question, but it has never made sense to me. It's based on the assumption that "literary classics" (specifically works of fiction) are stories about characters and that, since these visual media are able to tell stories about characters, if you faithfully tell the stories and present all the characters you've adequately reproduced the book. (Or even if you haven't, it's not a big deal because viewers will still get "acquainted" with it.) While it's true that some "literary classics," especially those written in the 18th and 19th centuries, have stories and characters, surely it isn't the case that they are conveyed to us in the same way from "classic" to "classic." What gets lost in the adaptation is narrative voice, fluctuations in point of view, subtleties in characterization, shades of description. Most importantly, what gets lost is the encounter with language. And this is unavoidably true even in adaptations that are not "vulgar and simplistic."

To believe that adaptations are acceptable substitutes for the works adapted is to believe that the experience of watching a film or television show, even the most intelligent and well-wrought shows, and reading a novel are essentially the same. Or at least the differences are negligible enough that the "essence" of the work is still getting through. It seems to me an implicit devaluation of what is actually the distinguishing feature of fiction--its status a patterned prose, as writing--to maintain that it can be translated into visually realized images without sacrificing its essence. A given adaptation of The Master and Margarita may work on its own, visual, terms. It may even be more successful than another adaptation at capturing something recognizably "Bulgakovian" in the treatment. But it still isn't The Master and Margarita, and viewers of the film who don't become readers of the novel still don't really know what it's all about.

A good television or film adaptation can certainly provide pleasures of its own, but they are the pleasures available in that medium. A good film requires careful attention, just as does a good novel, but the kind of attention being paid is not the kind required by fiction. It can provoke us into immersing ourselves into the mise-en-scene (in a way perhaps analogous to painting but not continuous with it, since the image moves) or force us to keep track of the information conveyed through editing, but this is ultimately the work of the eye and ear keeping pace with appearances. We have to look and listen. Fiction requires a kind of looking, but even our visual registering of word, phrase and sentence, and the way these elements arrange themselves in a "style" distinctive to the author we're reading, is more an internally-oriented mental process than an externally-oriented process of sorting sights and sounds (although a kind of "listening" is also certainly involved, as language manifests itself to our mental "ear"). Our imaginations then have to finish the job the writer has started. We have to mentally transform the words, phrases, and sentences into the "actions" or "thoughts" or "emotions" of the "characters" we agree are being brought to a kind of life. (Films, of course, do this work for us.) And we have to keep straight the way in which the characters and their actions are being presented to us in a particular sort of formal arrangement, an arrangement that is again mostly a phenomenon of our mental engagement with the text. Sometimes--as in some modernist and postmodernist fiction--this formal arrangement overrides our immediate connection to the characters and the actions and has to be processed before we can even comprehend the characters and actions.

I don't say that fiction is superior to film (I have a background in film study and criticism myself), but to the extent it makes the kind of demands on us I have described, it certainly is different in its aesthetic and psychological effects. For a "literary classic" to finally be appreciated, it has to be appreciated as literary. It probably doesn't do any harm to people (as opposed to literature) when they're allowed to be "acquainted" with literature through film, but I can't see that it does them much good, either.


In his disquisition on fiction's loss of audience to television shows about the Mafia, John Freeman opines that "America's most powerful myth-making muse long ago moved in to Hollywood" and that the novel has additionally "been whacked by a number of things," such as the decline of public education and the rise of advertising.

While the spread of a kind of voluntary illiteracy in American culture certainly doesn't help in the effort to perhaps entice a few current nonreaders into becoming readers, I really don't think The Sopranos has likely distracted the attention of many people who might otherwise have been reading novels, certainly not many people who under different circumstances might have spent their time with Nabokov or Beckett. Would it really be a coup for literature if some of those watching The Sopranos were instead reading James Michener or Mario Puzo, in reality the true "myth-making" alternatives to "the screen in its many incarnations"? And if by pointing out the dominance of the "language of advertising" Freeman is criticizing the "book business" for its marketing of trash of all kinds, including that which is sandwiched between covers and called a "book," then I certainly agree with him, although presumably he would be satisfied if such advertising were used to attract readers to real books. Indeed, later in his article Freeman lauds the way such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Ralph Ellison, and Jack Kerouac managed to combine literary ambition with "market penetration."

Freeman is probably correct, however, to cite competition from Hollywood as a detrimental influence on the standing of fiction, but its influence is not of the kind he imagines it to be. If the novel is being marginalized, it is not because too many people are watching HBO; it's because too many novelists are writing novels that are clearly meant to be made into movies. If fiction is being undervalued, by readers and critics alike, it's not because shows like The Sopranos are better, or more accessible, than contemporary novels; it's because fiction writers themselves implicitly concede that film and television are the narrative forms to which they ultimately aspire. If certain movies and the various cable miniseries programs seem livelier than fiction, it's not because fiction no longer "develops characters" on a grand scale, or has abandoned "some of the primary themes of the Great American Novel" or fails to render itself in "a deeply American language," characteristics Freeman believes are positively in evidence in The Sopranos; it's because too few novelists manifest any interest in sounding out the yet undiscovered possibilites of fiction as an alternative to the conventional narrative practices upon which film and tv continue to rely.

It is precisely the desire to achieve "market penetration" (a market that the movie business has not only penetrated but has saturated with its seed) that has caused fiction to become less and significant to the development of American culture.

I began to ponder these issues well before reading Freeman's article. I have long thought that most mainstream "literary fiction" was inspired less by writers' familiarity with literary history and more by the narrative demands of film. This doesn't necessarily mean that most writers want to produce plot-driven thrillers and melodramas or sweet romantic comedies. Indeed, the sensibility exhibited in much contemporary literary fiction is perhaps closer to that informing the "art film," the "independent" movies that can be described as "quirky" or "offbeat" or, simply, "serious." This kind of film has the advantage of combining a degree of artistic credibilty with some plausible prospect of popularity, should the film in question "find its audience," manage to accomplish a measurable act of "market penetration." With many writers, my impression is that their most deeply-held ambition is to see their work adapted into such a film, which would allow them to maintain their artistic cred while also having the work affirmed by those attuned to and sanctioned by our "most powerful myth-making muse."

But I was especially provoked into examining this phenomenon more closely when I recently watched Todd Field's adaptation of Tom Perotta's novel Little Children (screenplay written by Perotta himself.) I found it to be a reasonably pleasant, mildly "quirky" satire of suburbia, one that especially zeroes in on Americans' increasingly fraught attitudes toward parenting, fraught because so many parents have hardly ceased being "little children" themselves. My impression of the novel, based on the reviews and weblog discussions I'd read at the time of its release, was that it was a relatively unquirky literary satire written by someone specializing in the "youth" scene (his previous novels were Joe College and Election, the latter also made into a well-known film.) I decided to read Little Children to see if I had perhaps too quickly discounted him as a writer, although I suspected I would find the novel just another in the very long line of mediocre works of fiction that Hollywood directors and scriptwriters had managed to elevate into better films.

What I found was not just a mediocre work of fiction that managed to be transformed into a watchable film, but a mediocre novel that was mediocre precisely because it was obviously written in order to be so transformed.

If ever a movie could be said to have "filmed the book," the Field/Perotta version of Little Children is it. Very little of the book is left behind in the transference to film. The plot remains virtually undisturbed, much of the dialogue comes from the novel verbatim or with very minor changes, and almost all of the characters introduced in the novel are included in the film (although a couple of them, such as the husband of co-protagonist Sarah, have a diminished role, and the husband's subplot in particular--concerning his obsession with an online porn vixen--is pared back). The novel's scenic narrative structure, by which relatively brief, self-enclosed scenes, alternating primarily between those involving Sarah and those involving Todd, the "Prom King" with whom Sarah begins an extramarital affair, move us forward in a leisurely, episodic fashion is faithfully reproduced in the film. The ending is changed slightly, but not in such a way that the novel's underlying point ("boy, aren't these people pathetic!") is lost. One can easily imagine the screenwriter making his way, page by page, through this novel and converting its prose into scene headings and dialogue.

And yet the film, as an aesthetic experience, is an improvement over the novel. It's not a great film, but as "quirky" independent films go, it holds one's attention and provides the occasional amusing insight into the reverse trajectory (it's all downhill after college) so many Americans have followed in the last few decades. (In this way the film--but not the novel--is reminiscent of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, although Yates's novel is much bleaker, less content with mere amusement.) The novel, on the other hand, is a slog, full of uninspired prose and hackneyed observations. And this difference, in my opinion, is all the difference in the world. The movie spares us Perotta's labored, cliche-ridden, "unobtrusive" writing. It spares us passages like this:

Aaron had discovered his penis. Whenever he had a spare moment--when he was watching TV, say, or listening to a story--his hand would wander southward, and his face would go all soft and dreamy. This new hobby coincided with a sudden leap forward in his potty training that allowed him to wear big boy underpants at home during the day (at night, during naps, and in public he still needed the insurance of a diaper.) Because he often had to sprint to the bathroom at the last possible moment, he preferred not to wear pants over the underwear, and this combination of easy access and an elastic waistband issued a sort of standing invitation that he found impossible to resist.

Almost every sentence here is built out of banal phrasing and worn-out expressions: "had discovered his penis"; "a spare moment"; "soft and dreamy"; "a sudden leap forward," etc. The last sentence in particular is a headlong accumulation of cliches. (I can't decide if the "standing invitation" is meant as a pun--a bad one--or is just lazy writing.) This is supposed to be a "plain style," but its effect is precisely, through its very shoddiness, to draw attention to itself rather than away. I spent more of my time wincing at the woodenness of the prose than following the story, and without "story" a novel like Little Children has nothing. The film rescues the story from the writer, as the director has at least some "style" in cinematic terms. The novelist has none.

One might say that since Perotta himself wrote the screenplay he was able to preserve most of the story another screenwriter might have altered, or that since it is his story he clearly does have some talent as a writer. But these claims only reinforce for me the conclusion that the novel was probably written with the screen version in mind and that the talent Perotta has is precisely a talent for screenwriting. The concepts of "story" and "character" his novel manifests are those prized by moviemakers. Aside from the adultery plot and the supporting cast of "offbeat" characters, Little Children (the novel) has little else to offer, nothing readers who read novels that in one way or another advance the form (even a little bit) would find compelling. I understand that practically everyone in the world has a "screenplay" in the works, and that few of them will ever be produced, but if you're going to write a novel that exists only as a proto-movie, why not just write it up as a script to begin with?


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